One of the things I am most proud of when it comes to the way that Thread has done business, is that we’ve spent the past 5 years asking good questions as opposed to prescribing answers. Asking good questions is one of the most important skills I think a person, or a team can develop. It’s also a skill attributed to successful high performers, so it stands to reason that it translates as an indicator of a successful company.
Listening vs. Prescribing
It’s logical that high performers would ask good questions. Good questions require listening, synthesizing data, seeing the gaps in your own understanding or planning, and then finding the right information to make the best decision moving forward. Asking questions requires you to think 3 steps ahead, see potential outcomes, and make you aware of what you don’t know. Questioning, rather than prescribing is what leads to innovative, collaborative, sustainable solutions. I believe that this is why Thread has been successful in Haiti – an environment where we have watched many organizations fail.
We know better, right?
You see it often in economic development. People/governments/companies with money travel to a poor community and tell the people there what they need. Because we know better, right? Often times, they also bring them stuff they think is needed. Water filtration systems are put in place, schools are built, and a bunch of kids are given shoes. These are all good things, right?
Except that the water filtration system is made of expensive parts that need to be imported from Taiwan, so after a few months something breaks and no one can replace it. Then the system sits and rusts. Schools are built, then sit empty because there are no teachers to run them. Local shoe makers are put out of business.
All of this happens because people come in thinking they are doing a good thing, and no one takes the time to first check their hypothesis with the communities they are trying to help.
The Listening Model
Thread was built on the idea that “If Haiti can turn trash into $ = good.” We spent months testing this theory. We asked more people than I can count (actually no, I keep good records, one of our sample sets in 2012 contained 185 people, for example) about jobs and waste, family life, and neighborhood resources. We continue to adjust our methods and approach based on constantly gathered feedback.
- We had hundreds of conversations asking people what they did with their waste?
- What they thought about plastic bottles?
- Would they be interested in collecting these bottles if we paid them?
- Would this be a good thing for their neighborhood?
- Was there something else they felt was more important for their community?
- What do you need?
- What do you want?
- How can we work with you to be useful?
“How do you get that information?”
A couple of years ago, I explained the importance of asking questions in our process to a graduate student over a Prestige at a bar in Petionville.
“But how do you go about getting that information?” she asked me.
“You pick a neighborhood,” I responded, “and get an introduction to someone that lives there. And then pay them to spend a day walking you around from house to house, introducing you to their neighbors and asking if you can talk to them about garbage. Then, if the neighbors say yes, you survey them.”
She looked at me aghast. “But, that would take so much time!” she exclaimed.
It does. It’s worth it.
Results in action
Last week we hosted our second quarterly meeting of the year with our Haitian suppliers in Port-au-Prince. Historically, these meetings have been led by Thread or a partner organization. This time, we experimented with a new format where the meeting was supplier-run. We talked to our suppliers, elected two leaders, and then Thread’s Haiti Field Manager, Richardson coached them on how to build an agenda and facilitate a meeting.
Manique and Equel did a great job. My goal in this new format is to make these meetings a habit that happens whether or not Thread is there.
I like problem solving and sometimes I have good ideas, but I’m not hubristic enough to think that I should be standing in front of 40+ entrepreneurs telling them how to run their businesses in Haiti. I’m there to listen, to support, and occasionally bring access to financing.
The answers are in front of us (and you).
I really believe that the answers to all of the challenges these entrepreneurs face are in that room in their collective expertise. If we can facilitate good discussion and ask the right questions, they will learn so much more from one another than I could ever teach them.
We spend a lot of time at Thread talking about the transparency in our supply chain, the impact stats of our fabric, the income being generated in poor communities through the recycling of plastic, but perhaps not what we really consider to be our responsibility to the places and people we work with.
We don’t just know where our raw materials come from and visit once a year to satisfy a compliance requirement. We go beyond auditing to focus on coaching. We prefer lasting development to compliance. We don’t just generate income opportunities, we teach people how to run and grow businesses. That’s how we measure responsibility.
And help build community leadership.
I’ve had the privilege of watching entrepreneurs like Manique and Nadine grow from learning to run a business into successful entrepreneurs. Now they are becoming leaders in their industry. I’ve met incredibly savvy business people who have transformed their lives, the lives of their families, and who are having a rippling effect through their communities.
This is what we are talking about when we say things like “where your stuff comes from is just as important as where you take it.” This is what we mean by the phrase, Ground to Good™. It’s beyond ensuring that labor laws are met, that minimum wage is being paid, that the material is certified recycled content.
The old model relies on perpetual poverty.
Social enterprises are often criticized for the increasingly popular “buy one give one” campaigns, because that model relies on people staying in poverty. You can’t give away shoes unless there are always people without shoes. This helps perpetuate the “other”, or the helplessness of the poor. What I love about our work is that investing in the self sufficiency of our supply chain only helps us. As people are able to move from being individual collectors, to running collection centers, to growing their business to multiple locations around the country, we get a more stable supply chain and higher quality raw materials.
My goal for our supply chains isn’t that we’ll perpetuate a role in which we’re needed, but that we build businesses that are self sufficient and thriving that Thread keeps purchasing from. Thread’s success does not rely on poor people needing stuff. Thread’s success relies on people really and truly climbing out of poverty through jobs.
When you wear a Thread t shirt you are connected to people who are making a living, yes, but more importantly, you are connected to people who are working hard to improve themselves and make a difference in the place they call home.
That’s the true mark of responsibility. The belief that we can leave some part of this world better and help people develop the skills they need to keep improving it.